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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Too Young to Die

A century ago, the Great War still had another year to cut short the lives of Europe’s young. More than 900 Balliol men saw active service. Nearly 200 died, another 200 were wounded. Most served as infantry officers. Their life-expectancy on the Western Front was about six weeks. It’s sobering to go through the Balliol College War Memorial Book online, take in the photographs and read the tributes. I searched for one who could represent the others, someone who died one hundred years ago this month. Edward William Horner was a well-liked member of the college who read Greats and was distinguished as a rower. He was called to the bar but when war broke out he joined the Hussars and went to France. He was injured in 1915 and assumed his war was over. But he recovered and insisted on re-joining his regiment. He died in November 1917 of wounds received in the 1st Battle of Cambrai. He was 29. His tribute speaks about his playfulness and wit, his gift for friendship, his fearlessness, his love of argument. And this: “at times he could be exasperating, but he also had, to a marked degree one of the major virtues of a friend – an infinite capacity for being forgiven”. He is commemorated outside this chapel, and, with all the others, in this high altar that was given as a war memorial in 1927. On this Remembrance Sunday we honour them.
I said I looked at these winsome young faces in the memorial book, but the truth is that I had the unnerving feeling that they were gazing at me. It’s as if they saw in me their peer, someone like them who had come up to Balliol full of hopes and expectations, but who, unlike them, had been allowed to live on, take up my life’s work, marry, have children and grandchildren, retire and grow old able to look back on a rewarding lifetime. When you love life, when you can hardly bear the thought that one day you won’t be here any longer, the loss of these young lives is unutterably poignant. 
Our New Testament reading was about another young man. He too was privileged. He too had a lot to lose: wealth, power and standing. And that little aside where the story says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him, suggests he also had a gift of winsomeness, the capacity to attract people, draw out their affection. He too came to a crisis where he saw the paths diverging in front of him and knew that the road less travelled was the one that beckoned. That road would require him to lay down his life in dying to himself and all that he craved the most. But his riches were too much for the kingdom of God. To set out on that narrower way and find treasure in heaven was too demanding. You sense that Jesus is heartbroken. “How hard it is to have wealth and yet enter the kingdom of God!” 
We mustn’t elide the young man in the gospels with the young who fell in war. Laying down your life for your country is not the same as finding the kingdom of God. And yet… consciously or not, obedience to the call of duty and service echoes the summons of God’s kingdom to give ourselves gladly and willingly in the cause of what is right and good. That is not to ennoble war or impute heroic motives and ideals to those we commemorate today. They did not choose this. They were too young to die. Their deaths were wrong. But it is to say that the ordeals war inflicted on them did bring out the best and the noblest human nature is capable of, like laying down your life for your friends as Jesus said. 
Perhaps the young man in the gospel can help us to think about how we honour our war dead today. I don’t mean simply remember them, though the importance of collective memory can’t be overstated. But honouring means something more. It means recognising our debt to the dead, and unlocking the power of memory to change our lives, the lives we might not, would not have had but for them. Their deaths need to make a difference to us, make us better people, re-orientate our goals for living and reawaken our resolve to heal our broken world.
Here in Balliol chapel every day throughout the Great War, a prayer was said, written by the Master himself. We give thee thanks for the members of this college who have willingly offered themselves and have laid down their lives for us, for our country and for the liberty of the world. Give us grace to follow their good example, that we may never lose heart but may bear with patience and courage, as these have done, whatever thy providence calls upon us to endure. Comfort the bereaved, and grant to all of us that our afflictions may purify our hearts and minds to thy glory . This is a good prayer. It takes seriously the sense of loss. It doesn’t invest war with a glory it doesn’t deserve. It sets the service of the war dead within the widest possible horizons, not just for us and for our country but for the liberty of the world – the kind of enlightened, liberal, global thinking you would expect from Balliol. It asks that we don’t lose heart but allow adversity to show us a way of living more purposefully with patience and courage
Perhaps it was something like this that eluded that rich young man who, faced with the choice of his life, could not rise to the challenge. I often wonder what happened to him after that encounter with Jesus when he went away grieving. Was his sorrow for a moment or a lifetime? Did a sadder and a wiser man come back years later to choose the more excellent way? 
Remembrance Sunday says to us: never forget those who, by contrast, said yes when the summons came. Those young faces in the college memorial book hold our gaze and appeal to us to do in our time what they did in theirs. That is, give ourselves to mending a world that continues to be ambushed by war and the threat of it, do what we can to champion peace, truth, justice and reconciliation, and not least, say our prayers and ask God to have mercy on the whole human family. And begin where we already have influence, in our communities, localities, relationships, wherever God has placed us. Who knows where small things can lead? You might call it “remembering forward”, allowing Remembrance to make a difference to the future we are creating for our planet. This is how to keep hope alive, and save ourselves from being like that rich young man who glimpsed another country “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace”; yet turned aside from the vision and went away in sorrow. 
Balliol College Oxford, Remembrance Sunday 2017
(Proverbs 3.1-18, Mark 10.17-31)

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